My two business partners, Dave and Ryan, attended Gen Con for the first time last year. Afterwards, Dave wrote the following blog post with his thoughts and reflections on his experiences. We’re posting it again here as game designers around the world are getting ready for Gen Con 2016. We won’t be attending this year, but we hope to go again soon. And if you are planning on going, we hope these tips help you out.
As a new company in the board game industry, we don’t measure success by the number of games we publish in a year or by the revenue those games (would hypothetically) generate. Success to us means meeting important players in the industry, practicing our pitch, and learning how to run useful playtests. By those measures, our first pilgrimage to Gen Con was probably worth the investment.
Also, we had a blast.
Rather than bore you with the immaterial details of our comings and goings, and who we had meetings with, I thought I would share a few things I learned this year.
Do your shopping on Thursday.
I’m not sure why this didn’t translate from my Comic-Con experience, but I found this to be as true at Gen Con: the longer the Con goes on, the busier the exhibit hall tends to be, and the less likely it is that the game you want is still available. While Sunday may not be quite as busy, that’s only because all the best games are sold out!
We never did get a demo of Evolution, because the demo tables were packed. The Mysterium line was too much to deal with. The few copies of The Captain is Dead that were there didn’t last long. And I don’t even know if Castles of Mad King Ludwig: Secrets was being demoed or not; I’m not even sure we made it over to Bezier’s booth.
Just because you can get a meeting doesn’t mean you should.
When you email a publisher to sign up for a pitch, they may not have time to really go through your sell sheet or even fully read your email. They may just agree to meet with you because it’s easier to rule you or your game out in person than over email. Do more research than them. Know their catalog, and know if and where your game fits in with what they’re doing.
We had a couple of meetings where it became pretty clear that Micromanage wasn’t going to fit into their lineup. Sometimes a publisher can tell within a few sentences that it isn’t for them. We should have known that. Now, in our defense I will say that some publishers do not make this very explicit on their websites. Being familiar with a publisher’s entire catalog is a lot of work, and if publishers would say upfront, “Here’s our mission statement” or “Here are what kinds of games we will and will not publish” that would go a long way. But it’s still no excuse for not knowing your audience.
Between pitches, panels, and playtests, we were pretty booked. On Saturday we left the hotel at 8 a.m. and stayed at the convention center until midnight. Needless to say we were dragging our feet a bit Sunday. And we still didn’t fully explore the exhibit hall, say hi to everyone we wanted to, or play near enough games.
It’s important for us as game designers to be exposed to lots of games, so I wouldn’t cut out those sessions where we actually played games (Golem Arcana, Damage Report, Star Traders in the First Exposure Playtest Hall, and a few others in the exhibit hall).
I also wouldn’t skip eating or sleeping (or drinking, apparently). I think I would be more selective when it comes to panels. From my perspective, there seems to be an inverse correlation between panel size and quality. My favorite panels are always those with one speaker going in depth on a particular topic. Also, there may be panels that are too basic for you. Don’t feel like you have to attend a panel aimed at game designers just because you are one. Pick the best ones for what you are trying to achieve.
This also relates to my next thought:
Schedule enough playtests to get the data you need.
We playtested Micromanage and Prism for 10 hours in the First Exposure Playtest Hall. I wanted to do as many playtests as possible, to get as many opinions as we could, but there always comes that point where you know your game is broken, you know what you need to do to fix it, and playing it more is just going to be frustrating. If you are getting the same bad/mediocre feedback over and over, at some point you need to stop playtesting and go back to the drawing board.
In our case, we found some issues on Friday we wanted to deal with. If we weren’t in a position to make changes to our games, we would have just stopped testing, because players will tend to congregate around the broken parts of your game.
In Micromanage, players have to make a hire (or discard someone from the hiring pool) and then they essentially get two actions. In version 6 we forced the second action to be a Resource card draw, to avoid AP and speed up the game. But players found this confusing: “Wait, I can draw a card as an action, and then I have to draw another card?” Of course that’s confusing. But problems aren’t always obvious until a few playtesters point them out. The solution was to revert to any two actions, even if players now spend a few seconds reading the card they just received to decide if they want to play it.
Prism is not surprisingly having lots of balance issues. Ensuring a close game for one player as well as five is very tricky business, and I hope to delve into that issue soon. But I was finding it hard to even design a map hard enough for five players. So we changed how portals work — players now face a puzzle plus a guardian — and threw in more hexes into our standard five-player map. We also beefed up the final guardian and put our final group of testers on a harder difficulty setting. We pretty much threw it all at them, and our playtest group fought a real battle against the game, ultimately winding up about one turn short of winning.
For us, we were able to get more data, and so continuing to playtest was worth it. But in other instances I’ve known things are just so broken there’s no point in carrying on with the scheduled playtest. In that case, just call it off and go do something else.
Talk to all the people.
We stopped and talked to lots of people in the dealer hall. We asked people about their Kickstarters, about their experiences exhibiting at the convention, about their games. We collected stories about Kickstarters (I only collect negative ones; Ryan only collects positive ones). We met game designers who were pitching their games. Actually, this was one of my favorite parts of the con: just talking to game designers about their games. And we didn’t always know these people were the designers, at least not until they started talking about their games.
You can always tell a booth employee/volunteer/model from a game designer (assuming you aren’t able to match the name on the badge to the one on the box). During the pitch, ask them almost anything about the game: some detail about a mechanic, an inspiration for the theme, how many units are being produced. A game designer’s knowledge of her own design is infinite and immediately accessible. And once you know you’re talking to the designer you can start to shift the conversation away from “here’s why you should buy my game” to more interesting shop talk about design.
We learned the history of Star Traders when we sat down to play with designer David Ladyman, learned the inspiration for and heard about how much work went into New York 1901 from Chénier La Salle, and just had a good time hanging out with Tom Cleaver while playing his new game Valley of the Kings: Afterlife. Designers are always so open, inspirational, and insightful, and it was a treat to be surrounded by them at the show.
We had no expectations for what downtown Indy would be like, and thinking we’d spend most of our time at the convention center, we didn’t do much research on the city. But we quickly realized Indianapolis is a great city, full of vibrant bars and restaurants, friendly people, and interesting tourist attractions.
We had some amazing local food and drinks, including Georgia Reese’s ridiculous soul food, a perfect late lunch at Potbelly Sandwich Stop, and late night beers at Granite City Food & Brewery. We even had an hour or so between our last meeting Sunday and the shuttle back to our hotel, which gave us time to visit the very nice (and thankfully air conditioned) Colonel Eli Lilly Civil War Museum. Highly recommended for the history buffs. And there’s a Chocolate Cafe across the street for everyone else.
For Gen Con 2016, I’d make a few changes: first, I would like a closer hotel. That extra hour of commuting really hurts by the end of the four days. I’d like to be more prepared: have a good list of who I want to talk to and where they are. I want to have more games in our pipeline so we can have some things closer to release and early prototypes we can get invaluable feedback on. I plan to skip any panel or event that I’m not super excited about.
Also, I hope to play more games.
Have you been to Gen Con (or another big convention) before? What did you think? Any other tips you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.